Three games of the Eastern Conference Final are in the books and the series is a complete and total tossup. If Wednesday’s game three proved anything, it’s that both teams can skate, both teams can score, no lead is safe, and any game can go either way in the blink of an eye.
The Lightning may have the 2-1 series lead, but there is plenty of hockey to play. This Eastern Conference Final is unquestionably still up for grabs.
Goal Scorers Delight
Defense appeared optional in game three, a contest which featured 11 goals and two blown two goal leads, one by each team.
The Rangers, who built up their reputation this season as being a strong, tight defensive group that can transition quickly, have suddenly become a loose, puck watching mess that has allowed Tampa Bay to skate wherever they so desire. The end result has left Henrik Lundqvist out to dry, and a Blueshirts team that has allowed the opposition – the Triplets line of Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov in particular, who combined for seven points in game three (4-3-7) – to post six goals in each of the past two games.
But just as the Rangers have had their woes defensively, so has Tampa Bay. While game three was just the first time in the series in which the Lightning surrendered more than two goals, it wasn’t the first game that the Rangers had time, space, and grade-A opportunities. In fact every game in the series up to this point has provided the Blueshirts with the potential to post more goals than they have in prior games these playoffs. It only happened to be in game three that they finally took advantage of it and posted a five-star up on the scoreboard thanks to two goals from Jesper Fast, and additional tallies from Brassard, Boyle, and McDonagh.
With how open the series has been thus far, it was only a matter of time before the flood gates opened for the Rangers the way they did Wednesday evening in South Florida.
Where Things Stand Moving Forward
As it stands right now, this series could swing either way. In game one, the Rangers played within their comfort zone through stifling, suffocating defense, yet made the most of their opportunities to win a tightly contested 2-1 game.
The Bolts stormed back in game two by forcing the Rangers out of their defensive game, and put up six goals to take the second contest by a 6-2 final. Those who watched the game, however, should have known that 6-2 wasn’t exactly indicative of the game up until the waning minutes when it eventually became clear that the game was over.
Game three was when everything appeared to even out. Neither team played stellar defense, neither team could hold onto a lead, and neither goaltender was particularly glamorous, thus we find ourselves looking onto a series which Tampa Bay leads, but could just as easily be trailing if a single bounce had gone the opposite way.
The Rangers know they haven’t been good enough on the back end, but they also know that the lapses they’ve been experiencing defensively are correctable in order to get back to the way things had been at the blue line. The Blueshirts also have one of the most consistent – if not the most consistent – goaltenders of the past decade. Henrik Lundqvist is a competitor through and thorough, and after fighting it for two games in a row now, it’s only logical to assume he’ll make adjustments and respond in turn.
The Lightning, on the other hand, also haven’t been ultra-tight defensively. Then again that isn’t exactly their M.O. the way it is for the Rangers.
Tampa Bay has, however, shown why their offense is widely considered one of the best in the NHL in these playoffs thus far, and they’ve also proven they can give the Rangers and Lundqvist fits with speed and skill.
If the Lightning continue to take no prisoners on offense, it will spell trouble for the Blueshirts. If the Rangers, though, can get back to the defensive style of play that got them to the conference finals in the first place, while still taking advantage – as they have at times – of the open ice on offense that this series has provided through three games, the rink could start to tilt the other direction back in New York’s favor.
— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) May 21, 2015
When it all boils down to it, this series could still go both ways. Everyone is talking as if the Lightning all but have this series in the bag with the way the Rangers have played defensively. It seems as though those same critics are forgetting that Bishop and the Lightning also blew a two goal lead, and also allowed five goals in Wednesday’s game three.
To say this series is over is naïve to say the least. If Henrik Lundqvist and the proven Rangers defense can buckle down, this series could easily be tied at two heading back to New York.
Whichever way you slice it, this series has featured back and forth mayhem, and if it proceeds to continue moving forward, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will come out of the East.
This Eastern Conference Final is a complete and total tossup. It truly is anyone’s series.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.